Mental illness stigma a problem in our schools

By Heather Stuart
April 13, 2012

Stigma, broadly defined as society’s negative response to people who have a mental illness, is often described as more disabling than the illness itself. It prevents individuals and families from seeking early identification and treatment for a mental illness; it tarnishes their reputation and social standing, and it results in serious inequities in educational, economic, health, and other social entitlements that non-disabled people take for granted. It is a form of social oppression that violates the human dignity and human rights of its victims.

With the growing recognition of the scope and magnitude of mental illnesses in the population (some 20% to 25% will meet the criteria for a mental illness during their lives), stigma is increasingly recognized as a major public health challenge and a barrier to recovery—so much so that important international and national organizations have mounted large anti-stigma efforts. Because most mental illnesses begin during adolescence or early adulthood, schools have become an important target for anti-stigma programming.  

In the recent CTF Survey on Student Mental Health (2012), 67% of the 3,927 teachers responding either “strongly agreed” or “somewhat agreed” that stigma (i.e. negative attitudes or unfair treatment) was a barrier to mental health service provision in their schools. Comments suggested that this was particularly true in areas with large immigrant populations, where stigma had an even greater impact. Respondents told us that many parents refuse to recognize that their child has a mental illness. They make excuses and do not want their child to be evaluated for fear of the stigma that is attached with mental illness. Teachers also commented that non-disclosure of mental health issues made it more difficult for them to meet their students’ needs.

However, as important as it is for children with mental health issues to be identified early so that they can receive appropriate services and supports, these students may be bullied or teased once their mental health problems become known. Indeed, one in five teachers responding to the CTF survey said they had “very frequently” or “frequently” seen a student being treated unfairly, bullied, or teased as a result of having a mental health problem. Only 17% of teachers could say that they had “never” witnessed unfair treatment because of a mental health problem. These figures show there is an urgent need to reduce the stigma associated with mental health problems in our schools. As we were told, stigma is a horrible influence and adults and children need the proper education regarding mental illness. We need to work harder to eliminate the stigma that is attached to mental illness.

The Opening Minds anti-stigma program of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) is trying to do just that. Opening Minds has partnered with local mental health and advocacy agencies from across Canada that offer contact-based education to primary and high school students. Contact based education employs people who have experienced a mental illness, who share their personal illness and recovery stories with students, and who work with teachers to create opportunities for active discussion and learning. Some programs have lesson plans that accompany the sessions so that teachers can reinforce key messages and help to dispel misconceptions. Our preliminary research shows that students who take these sessions are more informed, less prejudiced, and more socially tolerant of people with a mental illness, and that these effects may last for a period of months. Ultimately this work will yield standardized workbooks and lesson plans that can be used by teachers to help destigmatize mental illnesses in the classroom. If you would like more information about this program or other Mental Health Commission of Canada initiatives, please visit their web site at

Heather Stuart, PhD, Professor and Bell Canada Chair in Mental Health and Anti-stigma Research, Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, Queen’s University, Senior Consultant, Opening Minds Program, Mental Health Commission of Canada. [email protected].

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